Nile Rodgers, Rosanne Cash, Esperanza Spalding Honored at Berklee College of Music Commencement

More than 1,000 graduates from 72 countries and 38 U.S. states received degrees today at Berklee’s 2018 commencement.

May 12, 2018

More than 1,000 graduates from 72 countries and 38 U.S. states received degrees today at Berklee’s 2018 commencement ceremony. Berklee President Roger H. Brown presented honorary doctor of music degrees to music legends Rosanne Cash, Nile Rodgers, and Esperanza Spalding. Spalding, a 2005 graduate of the college, delivered the commencement address to the graduating class and an estimated audience of nearly 7,000 guests at the Agganis Arena.

The annual commencement concert, held the previous evening at the Agganis, featured some of the college’s most accomplished students paying tribute to the honorees. The event also featured surprise performances by Spalding, who performed “Radio Song” with the Berklee Global Jazz Ensemble, and Cash, who performed “When the Master Calls the Roll” with a group of Berklee students.

In presenting the award to Spalding, Brown cited the four-time Grammy Award winner's acclaim as a composer, bassist, lyricist, producer, actor, and humanitarian, and her boundless creativity and bold artistic vision. He noted that this is the first doctorate he’s presented to someone who was a student during his tenure as president. “What an honor to watch Esperanza Spalding enter and transform the world of music,” said Brown.

Spalding was nearly speechless in accepting the award, breaking into song briefly in lieu of words. She later returned to the stage for her commencement address, confessing that she had not prepared a speech. “You know why? Because I just wanted to tell the truth to you guys today, and you cannot prepare or control the truth,” said Spalding. “We are artists, so everything that we live, practice, and study prepares us to share and tell the truth.”

Spalding added, “As profound as this ritual is, celebrating what you’ve been through and where you’re going, let’s remember what it’s really all about. It’s about the spirit. You are vessels now, to go out into the world and to transmit this spirit. That’s your job now. From here on out, nobody else is going to tell you how to do it. You are the vessels that have to listen, receive, exchange, and communicate.”  

Super producer and musician Nile Rodgers, whose signature sound framed his work with everyone from Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Madonna, to today’s EDM artists, was praised in Brown’s introduction by artists including Berklee Percussion Chair Omar Hakim, Duran Duran’s John Taylor, and Pharrell Williams, who said of Rodgers, “He’s a prolific producer and an incredible writer. He dominates.”

I want to thank everybody here, but I gotta give props to the band last night, it was just amazing,” said Rodgers, in accepting the award. He added, “When I was growing up, all my friends who had come from Berklee were the best musicians that I ever knew. It is such an honor for me to get this award here at Berklee. I am absolutely, absolutely, the happiest person in the world right now to receive this honor.”

Watch Berklee students perform a tribute to Rodgers and his work:

Rosanne Cash, an 11-time Grammy nominee and four-time winner, was honored for her pioneering impact on recasting and expanding country music, and her extraordinary ability to move people through words and music. Cash was also moved by the concert. “Thank you to the performers last night, you blew me away. Incredible,” she said. In her acceptance, she advised the graduates, “Don’t forget you work in a service industry. You serve the needs of the soul and the heart, so don’t become cynical, we count on you.”

The faculty speaker for the event was Marti Epstein, a professor in the Composition Department. Epstein encouraged graduates who may find themselves in positions of power, “I ask that you are trustworthy and accountable. Use power only for good, never for evil. Use it to honor our art and help bring beauty into the world.”

The student speaker was Beth Njoki Mwangi, a music therapy major from Nairobi, Kenya. Mwangi paid tribute to all of the family, friends, teachers, and staff who supported the class over the years, and concluded her speech by leading the audience in a traditional South African call and response of “power” and “to us.”

This year’s honorary doctorate recipients were recognized for their achievements in contemporary music, for their enduring contributions to popular culture, and for the influence their careers and music have had on Berklee’s international student body. Past recipients include Duke Ellington (the first, in 1971), Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Smokey Robinson, Steven Tyler, Loretta Lynn, Juan Luis Guerra, Annie Lennox, Paco de Lucia, Carole King, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, George Clinton, Julio Iglesias, Plácido Domingo, A.R. Rahman, Rita Moreno, Milton Nascimento, Lionel Richie, Lucinda Williams, and Wang Leehom.

About Berklee’s Class of 2018

This year's class hails from 72 countries, including South Korea, Canada, Japan, Russia, China, Chile, India, Israel, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Norway, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Slovenia, and Kenya. The graduates will follow in the footsteps of alumni who are innovators in music business, education, music therapy, production, and every area of performance and writing. Berklee alumni, who have won more than 300 Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards, include Esperanza Spalding, Quincy Jones, John Mayer, Diana Krall, Imagine Dragons, Melissa Etheridge, Gary Burton, Juan Luis Guerra, Lalah Hathaway, and professors Terri Lyne Carrington, Danilo Pérez, Paula Cole, and many others.